Recently, my husband and I traveled to Poland; we visited Auschwitz I & II. The latter is also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Until that trip, I didn’t realize the difference between the Nazi concentration camps and the death camps. The former were slave labor camps where crews of people worked themselves to death hewing out rock, and doing other hard manual labor jobs. The death camps were simply that — places to exterminate mass numbers of people who were declared enemies of the Nazi regime — including “Jews, artists, educators, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.” [Auschwitz; the History Channel; http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/auschwitz]
These mass exterminations were carried out in the gas chamber, by firing squads, through starvation, and by hanging. Both types of camps also ran barbaric medical experiments which mostly killed their patients — often purposefully. Previously, we had visited Flossenberg, a concentration camp in the Bavarian region of Germany. This labor camp was miniature in size compared to either Auschwitz camps; but, like its sister camps, still managed to exude a creepy sense of evil and foreboding. Father Patrick Winslow. pastor, talk show personality and speaker for Bible studies [including the Book of Isaiah for the Catholic Scripture Studies], said it best when describing his feelings while visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp. He said it felt as if “Hell itself had percolated up through the earth into this camp.”
The camps were indeed little microcosms of Hell on earth; and all of them operated efficiently because they used fear, its sister emotion anguish, and totalitarian oppression (the opposing vice to freedom) to demoralize the prisoners. They were commanded by despots and the results were very hellish. While there, it was easy to imagine that on any given day the prisoners’ primary emotion was fear which lead to hatred, more fear and complete demoralization. This helps to explain why there were so few insurrections by the prisoners even though there were a few. For example, on “October 1944, a group of Auschwitz ‘Sonderkommando’ young Jewish males responsible for removing corpses from crematoriums and gas chambers, staged a revolt. They assaulted their guards, using tools and makeshift explosives, and demolished a crematorium. All were apprehended and killed.” [http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/auschwitz]
This begets the question — why/how is fear like Hell? Before answering this, let’s back up and consider why God warns us against Fear itself so often in the Old and New Testament. “The New American Standard Bible includes the phrases 'Do not fear’ 57 times and 'Do not be afraid’ 46 times,” [ask.com] There are also many other Bible stories and parables which teach us not to fear. The number of exhortations of “Do not Fear” exceeds 100. Its emphasis shows us that God really wants us to understand that fear can lead to the loss of happiness.
What exactly is fear? According to the Catholic Catechism, fear is one of the principle human emotions or passions; other principle passions we experience include love, hatred, desire, joy, sadness and anger. [CCC 1772] These feelings — including fear — cause us “to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” [CCC 1763] Fear itself produces anxiety, hatred, aversion and more fear of the impending evil. The result is more sadness at some present evil or in the anger that resists it. [CCC1765]
The prisoners of any of the Nazi camps would have had to have experienced fear nearly every single day after being rounded up, sent to, and while living in the death camps. And it seems fair to say that most of their days must have seemed like a living hell. Their actions/reactions to fear varied depending on personal circumstances, expectations, ‘assigned jobs’, and tortures endured, personal health and wellness, and even personal characters and virtues stored within their soul’s toolboxes.
Some bore the suffering better than others; some bore the suffering far worse than others. In this way, fear and Hell are capable of having the same effect on all types of people. Fear can lead people to a place of personal darkness. Fear can strip away personal energy so that we don’t do what we need to do to better a situation. Fear can even strip away our desire to live. Many prisoners at the camps would throw themselves at the electrified fences or knowingly disobey orders and run from guards. They were well aware that their actions would kill them. I remember wondering how I would have reacted to such darkness. It makes me wonder, even today, how many of us live with fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of dying. How many of us are immobilized from doing and living as we should because of fear — real or imagined?
Why else are we forewarned to Not Fear? Because fear can generate anguish of the soul that leads to a complete loss of faith. On the other hand, it can also lead to sainthood. I remember well the final cell that held St. Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz. He had agreed to exchange his life for a Jewish man who was to be executed for violating some Nazi rule. Kolbe pitied the man as he cried out for his wife and children. Consequently, Kolbe was forced into a very small cell with three other death row prisoners for a significant amount of time. They were not given food or drink or bathroom privileges. The only way in or out was through a very tiny door at the bottom of the entrapment. There were no windows or circulation. Most died of asphyxiation while holed up in such cells. The cell was so small that the four bodies could only stand 24 hours a day — there was no room to move around in or sit down. One even had to die standing up! Kolbe outlived his executioners patience. “The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection" according to Wikipedia. Even though he also must have experienced fear, he did not let it overcome him. He did not allow fear to make him lose faith in God. Genuine fortitude, faith, hope and love of God and others over self earned him sainthood. There were probably many other saints and heroes created within these death camps that we are simply unaware of but at least a few are known — including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe.
Fear can be very corrosive and demoralizing. This was evidenced within prisoner’s lives when fellow Jews betrayed other Jews to better their own personal state in life - even if it was temporary. What about those who turned on fellow prisoners for their own personal welfare? While their culpability was certainly lessened by the horrible circumstances, they provide the evidence showing how fear is often akin to Hell - it can strip us of any love for God and others. Hell is where personal rebirth is impossible and forever. While Hell revels in fear, oppression, hatred and anguish, personal corrosion and demoralization; the Kingdom of God is restorative to our body and soul; it is the place where we enjoy personal freedom. It is where we flourish because of Love and it is where we will serve others rather than self.
Fear can cause us to welcome darkness into our souls. It can spawn other vice including dishonesty and irrationality. Fear can cause us to despair; this loss of Hope can turn us completely into ourselves. Fear can be very corrosive and demoralizing. It causes us to forsake the one weapon capable of checking fear — prayer! Fear can disable us from loving others authentically when we worry about protecting self. Fear can make us less aware of the needs of others. The choice is ours. Either we will love God more and more and self less and less or we will love self more and more and God less and less. [St. Augustine] Fear is the loss of Fortitude, one of the Cardinal virtues. Or fear can we turned back by virtue and faith!
Hell is the absence of love. Of course, Hell is devoid of all virtue! Hell completely freezes us for eternity into inaction with regard to love, faith, putting on of personal virtue. The painting of Hell depicting souls stuck in ice explains that state well.
May we hear and heed Jesus’ warning about fear this Lent. Let’s pray for the courage to overcome personal fears — both real and imagined. Let’s pray that the Lord restores Hope during these upcoming Forty Days. Let us pray for authentic love so that we do good, see the needs of others, and love God and others over self. Let’s pray for fortitude even when/if our family life is in chaos; our jobs are in jeopardy; our futures are uncertain; the election process may feel unnerving and hopeless; our marriages are suffering; and our children are challenging. May we all turn to God in prayer during these 40 days. May Faith, Hope and Charity abound because of our reflection on fear.
God bless you all.